GRAY: Constructing a Man Out of His Memories
Published: Friday, February 7, 2014
Updated: Friday, February 7, 2014 02:02
In the last appearance of this column, Fr. Matthew Carnes, S.J., discussed the role of silence in our lives (“In Silence, We Find Room for Reflection,” A3, Jan. 24, 2014). Carnes’ insightful essay provoked my own reflections on how holy silence — the type he was analyzing — differs from “neurotic silence” and “unloving silence.”
I define neurotic silence as that inability to talk or react because I am afraid of sounding trivial, unsophisticated or even a little stupid. It is the silence of intimidation. The second unhealthy silence, which I call unloving silence, is the unwillingness to speak because I judge the folks around me to be unworthy or to be people who would not appreciate the depth of my response. Or it could be the silence of downright hostility; that is, the folks I am engaged with represent a view or a culture I do not honor or respect. This second kind of silence is the silence of hostility. It represents another kind of silence that Carnes was not talking about — a silence that emerges out of pride.
I ruminated about the kind of silence that Carnes was talking about, the silence that cherishes what was said or reverences what has happened and wants to make that word or deed my personal possession. This is the silence that Carnes was talking about, the silence of appropriation. It is the silence of love.
There is nothing that this kind of silence enriches more than my memory. The silence that finds room in my heart for something so good, so authentic, so powerful and so true, that I want to save it as something that will endure, that will be there tomorrow and the day after tomorrow as a privileged grace. I also want to integrate what I treasure from my remote past with what engages me here and now. I want to orchestrate my past and my present into harmony where the present clarifies, challenges and deepens the meaning of past events. I want to remember what gave me life with what now gives me life, what teaches me anew, what it is to love.
Georgetown creates an environment where the traditions of ideas, affections and insights of talented women and men of the past become present through reading and discussion. Georgetown is also a place where the flow of present issues and current concerns also becomes part of what we want to make our own, to make part of our memory. The human realities — from beauty to shrewd insight to outrage at injustices and meanness of spirit — can find lodging in our storehouse of memory. This is what it means to be educated, that we honor the silence to make the wisdom of the past part of our memory too. Education means that we explore the events of our present lives — of family, of the residence hall, of the immersion experiences — and bring them into our memories. All this enlarging of our memories makes each of us who we are.
Perhaps a character in Brian Falkner’s “Brain Jack” overstates it. Nonetheless, there is enough truth in his reflection to give us pause: “We are our memories. … That’s what makes us the person we are. The sum of all our memories from the day we were born. If you took a person and replaced his set of memories with another set, he’d be a different person. He’d think, act, and feel things differently.”
From the traditions we read and study to the lives we shape every day, what we remember constitutes the sacred space that identifies where our hearts have soared and where our hearts have been broken. Perhaps that is why we hold dear in the Christian household the request of Jesus that we “Do this in memory of me.” Memory forged out of silent regard for what life has been helps us learn from all our rich traditions who we are and what we earnestly desire to become, and we hold such learning in awe.
Fr. Howard Gray, S.J., is the special assistant to the president at Georgetown University. He is one of the alternating writers for
AS THIS JESUIT SEES IT ... which appears every other Friday.